Light is the backbone of photography. Without light, there are no photos. After all, the word photo means light. However, which type of lighting is best: natural or artificial? There are a lot of proponents for either camp, but this article will try and dissect the argument from both perspectives, and give you a chance to add your opinion at the end.
The arguments in favor of natural light are many, which means it’s not difficult to see why it is attractive to many photographers.
The pros of natural light
Natural light costs nothing to make use of; there are plenty of gadgets and accessories available, such as reflectors and diffusers, that do help to maximize results, but even without them, it is easy enough to get beautiful results using natural light, without spending any money. This apparent lack of a financial entry barrier makes it much easier for most photographers to immediately assume a preference for natural lighting.
Learning how to see, manipulate and utilize light, whether natural or artificial, is the most critical skill set for a photographer to learn. Fortunately, these break down into many individual skills that can be learned one at a time. In terms of natural light, a lot of these skills are easy to learn and put into practice. For example, you can read a tutorial on using an area open shade to diffuse and soften the light, then put it into immediate practice ten minutes later.
Another thing to keep in mind here is that cameras are designed for use in natural light first. So, a new photographer working their way through the technical basics of their camera, such as metering, aperture and shutter speed, is almost certainly learning with natural light, thereby improving both their camera and lighting skills simultaneously.
This point may seem a bit strange, but I have seen it crop up in various conversations, and it does affect some people’s perceptions. We live in a world that is currently obsessed with the word natural. It seems difficult to go more than five minutes without seeing words like organic, all-natural and free from. Of course, most of this applies to food and health products, but the mindset and lifestyle that go with it have become so expansive, that it has seeped into all manner of other aspects in our lives. Whether or not you buy into that sort of thing, try to ask yourself what sounds better and more appealing: natural or artificial? This may not seem rational in terms of photography (an inorganic, mechanical medium), but the appeal is more of an emotional one, and more often than not, emotion trumps rationale.
The biggest concern here is one of marketing. A photographer who refers to themselves as a natural light photographer may very well simply be attempting to appeal to the quite large demographic that holds value over that kind of thing.
The cons of natural light
While natural light has its advantages, it is not without its own set of shortcomings.
While the sun is a near constant during daylight hours, the availability of light is only one factor that needs to be taken into account. Clouds and other weather conditions are just a couple examples of things that will alter specific qualities of the light you are trying to work with. Softness, intensity, and color can all change in a split second at the whim of mother nature. If you are attempting to work towards a specific goal, these changes can be a nightmare.
After sunset, what do you do if you’re in a situation where you still want (or need) to take photographs. If you’re relying solely on natural light, the answer is: not a whole lot. Many photographers have no problem with this limitation; however, try to imagine what you can achieve with just another hour or two a day working towards your photography.
Aside from its effect on light, shooting outdoors means you are at the constant mercy of the weather. Cold temperatures, rain, snow, and wind can all make for some uncomfortable experiences for both you and your subjects or clients.
If you’re photographing in areas open to the public, you may be subject to the whims of passers-by. This can lead to an unwelcome audience, or even worse, hecklers. Believe me when I relate, that nothing kills the general mood of a session for both the subject and the photographer faster than excessive and undue attention from strangers.
These environmental problems can often be solved by finding an indoor location and using window light. While the effects of weather and other people are gone, this solution is not without its own limitations. Window light, while often beautiful for photography, can be quite dim and may require slower shutter speeds than you might like for portrait photography. A lack of space is also a common problem when shooting indoors.
Like natural light, artificial light, whether strobes, flashguns or continuous lighting, has its own set of advantages and shortcomings.
The pros of artificial light
By owning an artificial lighting solution, you have the means to take photographs at any time day or night, indoors or out, and the weather has no effect on you. If for some reason you want to do food photography at midnight, by all means, go for it.
If you own a set of flashguns (speedlights), they are not only convenient, but portable as well, and can be taken just about anywhere and set up with ease.
With studio strobes and the like, the sheer number of ways that they can be used for a vast array of creative results is their strongest selling point. These range from simple one light setups that mimic natural light, to complicated setups with seven or more lights.
Another great strength of studio lighting is the control it offers you over your final photograph. By controlling every bit of light in your scene, artificial lighting negates the unpredictability that you get with natural light. If you want a particular look or mood, all that you have to do is set up the lights, and take photos until you have your results. There’s no worry that a cloud will move in and block your light.
Apart from removing the environmental issues associated with natural light, studio strobes and flashguns are quite reliable. Most models in the moderate price range, and above, are very well made. This means that the power output, as well as color output, is consistent every time it fires. This a huge advantage over the fast changing conditions of natural light.
The cons of artificial light
Probably the most off-putting aspect of studio lighting is cost. It doesn’t matter whether you choose studio strobes, flashguns (speedlights), or continuous lighting; decent quality lighting equipment does not come cheap and a good set, along with modifiers, can easily cost over $1000. With natural light being a free and capable resource, it’s easy to understand why so many photographers steer clear of artificial lighting.
Another initial disadvantage of studio lighting is the amount of knowledge you have to gain, in order to start using it. It’s very possible to accidentally take a beautifully lit photo in natural light. With artificial light, that’s next to impossible.
A lot of photographers, me included, would probably gladly tell you how atrocious their first attempts with studio lighting were. To get good results, you have to spend an enormous amount of time reading and practicing. This involves things like new aspects of aperture and shutter speed in relation to flash, qualities of light, effects of modifiers and the dreaded inverse square law.
So, which is better?
In my opinion? Neither and both are better.
It depends on the job at hand. Both are just tools to be used at each photographer’s discretion. After all, nobody walks into a newly built house and waxes lyrical about the type of hammers that were used. Good photography is good photography, no matter how it was made. If something screams out to be lit with natural light, then natural light is better. Likewise with artificial light.
Each method is capable of stunning results and I would rather have a full toolkit to use for every opportunity, than miss out on something because I restricted myself from using the right tool for the job.
Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles this week that are Open for Discussion. We want to get the conversation going, hear your voice and opinions, and talk about some possibly controversial topics in photography.
Give us your thoughts below on the article above on natural versus artificial, and watch for more discussion topics this week.
See all the recent discussion topics here:
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